By David Schwartz


PHOENIX (Reuters) - The Arizona sheriff famous for his tough stance on illegal immigration and keeping jail inmates in tents faces a primary challenge from three fellow Republicans on Tuesday and a difficult race for re-election in November.


Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is seeking election to a seventh term as the top lawman for the area around Phoenix, is up against ex-police chief and three-time opponent Dan Saban and two others in the Republican primary.


Arpaio, 84, was expected to win despite a judge’s request that criminal contempt charges be brought against him stemming from a 2007 racial profiling case where he was found to have violated the constitutional rights of Latino motorists.


The investigation and possible prosecution was turned over to the U.S. Justice Department last week. It was not clear when a decision would be made.


Arizona pollster Mike O'Neil predicted that Arpaio would win the primary even with the possibility of a contempt charge hanging over him.

O’Neil said the primary is well-suited for Arpaio, with his core of Republican support, known for turning out in large numbers.

Arpaio, who styles himself as America’s toughest sheriff, said he expects to prevail at the polls and win against any prosecution efforts.

But Saban, his main Republican opposition, said it is time to retire the longtime incumbent after his latest legal troubles.

Saban has called on Arpaio to resign, saying the sheriff has “soiled his badge” and made himself ineffective as a lawman.

Arpaio, along with three others, could face incarceration and fines if convicted of any criminal charges. Arpaio and his second-in-command, Gerard Sheridan, already have been cited and admitted to civil contempt.

The charges center on unlawful traffic stops and detentions by deputies of Latino drivers for 18 months after the judge ordered them to cease.

Opponents also have targeted the profiling lawsuit’s high cost to the county, which will have spent an estimated $54 million on the case by next summer.

Also on the Republican primary ballot are Wayne Baker, a retired deputy sheriff, and Marsha Ann Hill, an ex-sheriff’s volunteer.

The primary winner will go against Democrat Paul Penzone, who is unopposed in his party's primary. Penzone, a former Phoenix police officer who is expected to present a tough challenge to Arpaio in November, lost to the longtime sheriff in 2012 by six percentage points.

(Editing by Sharon Bernstein and Bill Rigby)